Neighborly Talk Useless

Neighborly Talk Useless

RUTLAND HERALD 04/21/21
TIMES ARGUS 04/21/21
By Michael Shank

I want to critique an oft-repeated proposition in Brandon — and throughout Vermont — that you can deal with a grievance by simply “talking with your neighbor.”

To be clear, I support sitting down with anyone and, in diplomacy work, believe strongly that every stakeholder should have a seat at the negotiating table. In my work overseas, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with Taliban leaders in Afghanistan and Houthi leaders in Yemen. And I’ve always valued the opportunity to write articles with Republican and Democratic congresspersons. I love a good conversation with the other side of any debate, especially if it’s well-reasoned.

Yet when Brandon’s town leadership offered up this “talk with your neighbor” solution recently as the preferred method for dealing with extreme high-decibel noise — to address what should, instead, be solved by good governance and policy — a problematic power imbalance is immediately apparent.

Leaving policymaking responsibilities to a discussion between armed (and, in some cases, intoxicated) neighbors and unarmed neighbors is a recipe for disaster.

While I am a tall white guy, and may not feel as physically threatened as, say, a woman or a member of the BIPOC community might feel in my situation, any talking with a weaponized neighbor should be negotiated by a third party. The asymmetrical power imbalance is too substantial — and potentially life-threatening — for any serious negotiation.

Despite this power imbalance, when the heavy assault weapons and explosives use escalated in Brandon mid-COVID-19 last year, I led with this locally preferred method. I reached out to my assault-weapons-and-explosives-using neighbors to ask for a text alert or notification any time they planned a few hours worth of heavy weapons use, so that any horseback riding happening on our farm with neighbor kids wouldn’t be immediately imperiled by spooked horses.

How successful was that approach? While I’m tempted to append a screen grab of that text thread, in order to show you the response, and tempted to share the video of a different neighbor swearing at me after discharging assault weapons, I won’t. That’s not the point here, though I’m happy to share it with you if you want to see it. Instead, I’ll redact the names and share the substance.

Here’s what happened. I asked, “Can you kindly let me know in advance when you’re about to fire since we’re in horseback riding season now? I’m concerned about the safety of neighbor kids, and I’ll just make sure I don’t have anyone riding when the heavier munitions are being used. Thanks!”

The response, verbatim, “We’ve been shooting here for close to 20 years, and I have neighbors who have lived here longer and shot guns longer. There’s not now or ever going to be a schedule. We shoot, as I suspect my neighbors shoot, when time allows or the mood strikes us.” This person went on to say: “Perhaps you need calmer horses.”

I’m sharing this not because I need to be right or have the record show anything. I’m leaving Brandon, as I’ve already announced. The assault weapons and explosives — and their users — already won this debate. So that’s not the point. I’m raising this because as someone who has studied conflict throughout my career and worked in conflict zones globally, the idea that one unarmed neighbor can address or reason — equally and symmetrically — with another neighbor’s extreme/excessive assault weapons and explosives use, is harmful and dangerous to propose.

This is not the role an unarmed neighbor should be assuming. This is why we have chosen, as a democracy, to have policy, police and parameters for activity that could imperil the public. That’s why we elect people to serve and lead.

I very much hope this local lore of “talking with your neighbors” is used prudently and judiciously. It could be very dangerous for someone to assume — or be encouraged to assume — they’re on equal footing with a weaponized and inebriated neighbor, as one real life example.

My hope, going forward, is Brandon’s town leadership — and other towns in Vermont like Brandon — take their governance role seriously and serve the community with the gravity that elected office requires.

Dr. Michael Shank lives in Brandon.